'No player will say that he wants Olympic Games to be cancelled.'
India's top wrestler Bajrang Punia will not compete in the upcoming Ranking Series event in Poland, saying more than the ranking points he desperately needs mat-training with strong sparring partners ahead of the Tokyo Olympics since the 65kg category is loaded with top performers.
The 27-year-old said the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted his training schedule because neither he could travel abroad nor anyone could be invited to India for practice.
While India's other Olympic-bound wrestlers will travel to Poland, Bajrang will go to Russia with his coach Georgian Shako Bentinidis.
The June 8-13 event in Warsaw is the last ranking series event before the Olympics. The Indian team will stay in Warsaw for a training camp also after the tournament.
"Before Olympics, I need more training. The last 18 months have been tough. There were neither competitions nor training camps outside. It became a huge challenge to get sparring partners. Staying fit was also a challenge," Bajrang said during an interaction facilitated by Sports Authority of India.
"In my category there are 10-12 wrestlers and each of them is capable of beating anyone. There is no one wrestler who is favourite in 65kg. I can't prepare for one particular rival, what If I don't get him in the draw.
"So I need to focus on my training, so I have planned this Russia trip. I am awaiting my visa. There will be lot of strong wrestlers there in Russia, including world and olympic champions."
A weak leg defence and conceding early points has been a bane for him but Bajrang said he has worked hard to improve on both the counts. His immense power and stamina always gives him an edge over his rivals.
"My coaches say I end up wasting a lot of power in that point recovery process, so I now try not to concede those early points. My training has been such since my early days that my game has become power-oriented. But still I have worked on my leg defence and it has got better," he said.
Bajrang said he is in favour of Tokyo Olympics going ahead as scheduled even as there is a growing chorus for the Games to be cancelled amidst the pandemic.
"As an athlete I want the Olympics to go ahead. No player will say that he wants Olympic Games to be cancelled."
India will field a strong eight-member contingent at the Tokyo Games and Bajrang exuded confidence that the country will get at least four medals.
Bajrang said though support to athletes has got much better since 2016 but more needs to be done at the grassroots level.
"We always talk about Olympic medals but we need to support athletes in their junior days. If facilities and support is given to athletes from an early age, then India will be also be a strong Olympic nation like US," he said.
Bajrang said one of his favourite Olympic moments is Abhinav Bindra's gold medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
"As I made progress, step by step, my horizon got broad. The goals got bigger, from national to international and then I started thinking about Olympics. Till 2005 I did not even know about the Games. I did not know follow much. I just loved the Dangals (local bouts)," he said adding that Abhinav Bindra's gold winning performance at the 2008 Beijing Games is one of his favourite Olympic moments.
Bajrang said getting a foreign coach has helped him as earlier he had struggled to get strong partners when in abroad due to language barrier but since the arrival of Shako Bentinidis, things have become easier.